Monday, November 25, 2013

Tales of the Impossible: Banner Deadlines (2004)

back of the book
showing a photo of the author
The impossible crime stories of Joseph Commings have attained cult status over the years, so naturally I got a copy of this Crippen & Landru Commings collection, Banner Deadlines, when it appeared; but I am ashamed to admit I just got around to reading it.

My great impossible crime phase was back in the 1990s, when I devoured every John Dickson Carr I could get my hands on.  But I still enjoy reading about them today, and it's certainly true that this Commings collection is chock full of the impossible!

I must say I liked this collection somewhat less than Crippen & Landru's two collections of Dr. Sam Hawthorne impossible crime tales by the late Edward D. Hoch (a third one is due next year, by the way), an author as inventive as Commings in creating impossible situations and his superior in terms of the portrayal of character and place (Dr. Sam is a archetypal small town Yankee and the stories start in the 1920s and conclude--with Hoch's death--in the 1940s, so we get a wonderful evocation of place and time).

Commings' series sleuth, Senator Brooks U. Banner, doesn't have much of a developed personality in the earlier tales, and when he starts to develop more of one, he becomes very similar indeed in John Dickson Carr's Sir Henry Merrivale.  I like Sir Henry very much, so didn't mind his American cousin; however, Commings never creates any other memorable characters, nor, with a few exceptions, is the atmosphere of the stories that compelling, barring their impossible situations.

Nevertheless, there's some really clever stuff in here.  The earliest stories in the collections date from 1947 to 1949.  These are "Murder Under Glass" (murder in a sealed glass room), "Fingerprint Ghost" (man killed during a seance where everyone else is straitjacketed and the fingerprints on the murder weapon do not match those of anyone in the room), "The Spectre on the Lake" (two men shot at close range while in a canoe), "The Black Friar Murders" (two people killed, one impossibly, in a crumbling old monastery; there's also one of those cryptic dying messages), "Ghost in the Gallery" (murdered man reappears to commit murder) and "Death by Black Magic" (impossible murder of  magician during an exhibition of his act, with an older impossible crime as well).

These tales all have appealing elements.  My favorite is "The Black Friar Murders," which has the most developed plot and characters and a splendidly creepy, isolated setting.  For their impossible situations, a couple relied a little too much on pure magic tricks to me, but most of them, like "Murder Under Glass," have very clever, not too technical, explanations that are models of fair play.

Don't linger after dark....

The next group was published between 1960 and 1963.  I was less impressed with this bunch on the whole, though one, "The X Street Murders," which I had read before and loved, surely is one of the great impossible crime stories.  In this tale, which also has some Cold War atmosphere and is one of the few stories to make some real use out of Brooks Banner being, you know, a U. S. senator, an embassy official somehow is shot when his secretary enters his office with a sealed package.  The murder weapon?  The gun in the sealed package.  Figure that one out!  There's good suspense and a second murder and a brilliant yet straightforward explanation.

"Murderer's Progress" and "Castanets, Canaries, and Murder" didn't do much for me. Commings' portrayal of women has been criticized by some for being sexist.  This is something that could be said of a lot of work published in crime fiction mags in the 1940s through 1960s, surely, but I must admit I found the "Puerto Rican spitfire" character in "Castanets" rather overdone.

"Hangman's House" (impossible hanging in an isolated mansion outside Natchez, Misssissippi) has good atmosphere, but something of a letdown solution.  "The Giant's Sword," about a man murdered with a sword that seemingly could only have been wielded by a giant, also had, for me, kind of a "meh" gimmick.

The final group consists of stories written before Commings' 1971 stroke but published afterward.  One was published in 1979, one in 1984 and the last appeared for the first time in print in Banner Deadlines.

The first of these, "Stairway to Nowhere," is about a woman who impossibly vanishes--twice! Co-written with Edward D. Hoch in the 1950s, it's superbly readable and nicely worked-out.

What lurks inside the mausoleum?

The next one, "The Vampire in the Iron Mask" (originally published as "The Grand Guignol Caper") is to my mind the best story in the collection (at about 13,000 words it's also the longest).  To be sure, the debt to John Dickson Carr (one novel in particular) is tremendous, but it feels like a creative complement to Carr, rather than a rote imitation.  I wasn't surprised to learn in Robert Adey's introduction that Carr was an author who Commings "greatly revered and with whom he got on famously."

Atmospherically set in France a decade or so after WW2 at a school located next to a cemetery, "The Vampire in the Iron Mask" details the horrifying murders of schoolchildren by a "vampire"--the restless spirit of a French aristocrat who lost his head during the Revolution and was entombed with, in lieu of it, an iron mask.

There's a love (or lust) triangle as well, along with a very boisterous Brooks Banner at his most Merrivale-ish. The combination of horror, humor, history, an entrancing woman and men prone to highly stand upon their honor is very Carrian indeed.

This is the one story in the collection that one can really imagine as a full-fledged novel. Commings also provides inventive explanations for the murders that arise organically out the personalities of the characters (sometimes in these tales it feels like motive was tacked on as an afterthought).

Have you seen this man?
Wanted for murder....
Finally, there is "The Whispering Gallery," about a shooting seemingly committed by an upside-down, levitating man (one suspect is a magician).

This has another good solution and the humorous bits about Banner's magic act reminded me a lot of the Carr novel The Gilded Man.

My complaint about this collection, which has at least three impossible crime classics ("The Black Friar Murders," "The X Street Murders" and "The Vampire in the Iron Mask") is that it leaves out seventeen Banner tales.

I can't help but wonder about, for example, "The Scarecrow Murders" (1948), "The Glass Gravestone" (1966) and "The Fire Dragon Caper" (1984).  They certainly sound interesting!

Additionally (and frustratingly), in the introduction Robert Adey praises "Serenade to a Killer" (1957), which also doesn't actually appear in this collection. Would it be impossible to give us a second volume?


  1. "Serenade To A Killer" has just been printed in "The Big Book Of Christmas Mysteries." Reason enough to celebrate!

  2. Very fair assessment Curt - it's the plots that matter here, and some work much better than others - it was great that C&L put this book together, in my mind it's their archetypal collection as after decades of reading occasional stories it was wonderful to have them all brough togtehter, though clearly there are deficiences and readin too many in one go would be an error!